September 30th, 2010

Beyond 70.3: The Habit Vacuum

By Kyle Morich

Last Sunday, I competed in the ESI Ironman 70.3 in Augusta, Georgia.  A half-Ironman, the race was a grueling 1.2 mile swim in the Savannah River, a 56 mile bike ride in the rolling hills of South Carolina, and a 13.1 mile run on the flat city streets of downtown Augusta.  I finished in 4 hours and 57 minutes, beating my goal by 3 minutes, and I consider the athletic feat one of the better accomplishments in my lifetime.

But now it’s all over.  After 4 straight months of training six days a week, swimming 50,000 yards, biking nearly 1500 miles, and running 250 miles in preparation for the five hours of athletic performance, I have nothing to do.  While my body is certainly appreciative of the break, my mind feels very uncomfortable with the whole thing.  Consider the routine behaviors that are now disrupted or eliminated by the abrupt end to my triathlon season:

  • The time I wake up in the morning
  • The type of breakfast I eat
  • The exercise session before work
  • The number of meals I eat during the day, and the types of food I eat
  • The time I leave from work
  • The route I take home from work
  • The exercise session after work
  • The time I eat dinner
  • The time I go to bed
  • The time I wake up on weekends
  • The long training sessions on Saturday and Sunday mornings
  • The daily tracking of my training progress

And so on.  Suddenly, I’m receiving all these behavior cues in my familiar contexts that are no longer linked to active behaviors.  Some haven’t changed – I’m still waking up early and eating a similar high-carbohydrate, frequent meal diet as I did for the past four months, even though I have no need to do so.  Others, I’m having the impulses and then having to tell myself to stop, such as the need to drive straight to the pool after work.  Quite honestly, I feel a little empty, and a quick Google search reveals that there are hundreds of thousands of other Ironman athletes who go through the exact same reaction.

Anytime we have a routine disrupted, whether it’s through a move, unemployment, the end of a relationship, or some other external event, the sudden stress induced by this change weighs heavy on the brain.  As ‘creatures of habit,’ our minds have a high preference for forming routines that require little to no conscious intervention.  It eases the cognitive load of our decision-making and allows us to efficiently navigate our environments.  As I’ve discussed before, changing a habit is primarily difficult because the conscious mind does not control the behavior and intentions have little impact on the unconscious behavior responses to contextual cues.  But habit change is also difficult because we automatically form behavioral preferences for the actions we do all the time.

A quick experiment: cross your arms.  Seriously, cross your arms.

Okay, now look down at how you crossed your arms, and try to switch them (if you go ‘right-over-left,’ change to ‘left-over-right’).  It’s difficult, and feels weird.  But is the new position any fundamentally different or ‘better’ than the way you normally do it?

People prefer habitual behaviors because they are easy to perform.  We infer goals and preferences for behaviors we perform all the time, even if these behaviors are not necessarily the best option [1].  When you get upset when a favorite website changes their interface, you feel some dissonance and frustration even if the new design is much more intuitive and visually pleasing than the previous one (such as the recent redesign) [2].  This post-hoc rationalization of preference — ‘because it’s easy’ — looms behind so much marketplace inertia.  Your conscious mind convinces itself that something the unconscious mind did is far better than anything else you could have done.

I’m attempting to lessen the impact by spending every evening out of the house, removing myself from my familiar context and cues.  Soon, I’ll probably institute a new exercise regimen, either weight-lifting or some other sport, thereby transferring my habit cues to new behaviors.  The point is that the feeling of discomfort with a change in routine is natural, and is something everyone has to face when they want to (or have to) leave an old habit behind.

1 –  Johnson, E. J., Bellman, S., & Lohse, G. L. (2003). Cognitive lock-in and the power law of practice. Journal of Marketing, 67, 62?75.

2 – Murray, K. B., & Häubl, G. (2007). Explaining cognitive lock-in: The role of skill-based habits of use in consumer choice. Journal of Consumer Research, 34, 77?88.


One Response to “Beyond 70.3: The Habit Vacuum”

  1. Lee Carawan says:

    An old proverb: a change is as good as a rest